It’s not every day you get the chance to talk with a filmmaking legend. We did recently when iconic documentarian Frederick Wiseman, who mastered a form of observational cinema in such classics as “High School” and “Titicut Follies,” came to town. He was promoting “Boxing Gym,” his latest film (now playing at the IFC Center), and shared his thoughts on the allure of the gym, his working style and more.
As a general rule, if there is one, how do you pick your subjects?
It’s just generally whatever interests me, [and] strikes my fancy as a moment. Or what I get permission to do. I sort of have a running list in my head, but I’m not rigid about the list. For example, when I made “Model,” I happened to be in a dentist office and I was reading People magazine and there happened to be an article about a model agency, so I thought that it was the right age for me to make a movie about a modeling agency.
Were you drawn to make this film by the poignancy of boxing as a subject in 2010, when it seems to have largely receded in the popular conscience, replaced by mixed martial arts etc.?
I don’t follow mixed martial arts that much, so I have no idea whether boxing is or is not being replaced by mixed martial arts. I was always interested in boxing and I thought it’d be a good subject, and a boxing gym would be the right place. When I found Lord’s [Gym in Austin, Tex.] I was sure I found the right place.
What drew you to Lord’s?
The gym looked terrific. It was a million dollar set, with all those posters and pictures and the rings, and it all takes place in a small area, and the exercise equipment and a wide variety of people who work out at the gym – all classes, races, gender, ethnicities were represented there.
How do you determine what you shoot and where you find your stories?
I try to get some sense of the routine of the place, so it’s a combination of figuring out what the routine of the place is, who’s being served, whether they’re being themselves at all … and then chance. Just seeing somebody who looks interesting, or you like the way they walk, or have a funny looking hat. … It varies a bit from film to film. I try to get a sense of what the place is like and find situations that express that.
Was there anything that particularly surprised you about the world of the gym?
[Proprietor] Richard Lord is a very good man, who’s very tuned into other people. He handled the diversity of people at the gym extremely well. In a sense, he treated everybody the same. He was tuned into their psychological, emotional and physical needs and he helped them. He’s a terrific man and I have great respect for him, so I don’t know whether that surprised me [but] there was a degree of tenderness expressed in the gym that was perhaps surprising given the subject matter.
Why has the “direct cinema” descriptor, which you’re known for not appreciating, been so widely applied to your work?
Beats me. Academics need to organize things in categories. As far as I’m concerned I make movies and that seems to be an adequate description. Cinéma vérité, I’ve said many times before, is just a pompous French term. Observational cinema, that doesn’t really do it, because that suggests you just turn on a camera and watch somebody for 45 minutes. It eliminates choice and eliminates editing. And direct cinema. I have no idea what it means.